In the Sidra of Behar, instructions are given about the observance of two special kinds of sanctified year—the seventh year (Shemittah or “release”) when the land was rested and lay fallow; and the fiftieth year (Yovel or “Jubilee”) when the Hebrew slaves were emancipated and most property reverted to its original owner. The two institutions were connected, the Jubilee being the completion of seven seven-year cycles. It was not, itself, counted as a year in the seven-yearly reckoning. The Jubilee lapsed as a practical institution when some of the Tribes went into exile. But we can distinguish three periods in its history: (i) a time when the Jubilee was observed, (ii) a time during the second Temple when it was not observed but was still counted for the purpose of fixing the seven-year cycle, and (iii) a time (like the present) when neither Temple stood, and the seven-year cycle was counted without reference to the Jubilee. The Rebbe explores the spiritual meaning of the seventh and fiftieth years, and thus gives an inward interpretation to the three periods, and the religious consciousness they represent.

1. The Jubilee

“And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a Jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.”1

In this connection, the Talmud states: “When the tribes of Reuben and Gad and the half-tribe of Menasseh went into exile, the Jubilees were abolished, as it is said, ‘And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof,—that is (only) at the time when all its inhabitants dwell upon it, but not at the time when some of them are exiled.”2

Despite the fact that the Jubilee—as a time of emancipation of slaves and restitution of property—lapsed, the (Babylonian) Talmud notes that even during the period of the second Temple, “They counted the Jubilees to keep the years of release holy.”3 Every seventh year was a year of release (“Shemittah”), a sabbatical year for the land when it was “released” from cultivation and lay fallow. In this cycle, according to the Rabbis,4 the fiftieth year was not counted, so that they had to continue counting the Jubilees in order to be able to observe the Shemittah years of release in their proper time: To ensure that release was observed in the seventh year after the Jubilee rather than after the forty-ninth year.

Tosefot5 raises an objection: The Jerusalem Talmud states, “At a time when the Jubilee is not observed as a year of release, neither do you observe the seventh year as a release.”6 If so, during the second Temple period, when the Jubilee was not observed, merely counted, it should follow that the seven-year release of Shemittah should also have lapsed.

Rashi’s opinion7 is that the seventh year was observed during the Second Temple, only as a Rabbinic law. In other words, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds are not in disagreement, the Jerusalem Talmud asserting that the sabbatical year was not (while the Jubilee was in abeyance) a requirement of Torah law, the Babylonian Talmud mentioning that it was nonetheless continued, by Rabbinic decree.

But according to Tosefot, the two Talmuds conflict, the Babylonian asserting that the seventh year was obligatory under Torah law, independently of the Jubilee, in disagreement with the Jerusalem Talmud.

2. The Spirit and the Law

The legal decisions of the early Rabbis, the Tannaim and the Amoraim, were not made merely as a result of a this-worldly reasoning.8 They were men of great spiritual insight, who saw matters in a spiritual light and then translated their vision into intellectual and legal terms. Since their souls differed in the visionary heights they were able to reach, so also their practical decisions differed, and this was the source of their legal disagreements.9

Seen in this way, we might say that the disagreement (according to Tosefot) between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds as to whether the Shemittah year of release was required by Torah law during the second Temple period, has its origin in the different levels of spirituality these two works represent.

The Babylonian is the lower level. “‘He hath made me to dwell in dark places’—this, said Rabbi Jeremiah, refers to the Babylonian Talmud.”10

At the higher level of the Jerusalem Talmud, it required the sanctity of the Jubilee to complete the sanctity of the Shemittah year. At the lower, Babylonian, level, the seventh year was complete in itself even without the Jubilee.

3. The Lapsing of the Jubilee

When the Second Temple was destroyed, the year of release was counted in a new way.

While the Temple stood, the fiftieth year was not counted as part of the seven-year cycle. But “during those seventy years between the destruction of the First Temple and the building of the Second, and also after the destruction of the Second, they did not count the Jubilee year, but only (unbroken) seven-year cycles.”11

Why, then, is there a difference between the way we count the year of release now, and in the Second Temple, when the Jubilee had ceased to be observed?

Using our previous concept, we might say that while the Temple existed, the level of spirituality was so high that the Shemittah year of release needed the higher sanctity of the Jubilee for its completion—at one period, the actual observance of the Jubilee at another, at least the counting of it. But when the Temple was destroyed, spiritual achievement sank to the point where the year of release no longer had any connection with the Jubilee.

4.The Inner Meaning of the Seventh
and Fiftieth Years

To understand all this, we must discover the equivalents of the seventh and fiftieth years in the religious life of man.

The seventh year, the time of release, represents the “acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”12 This is when man suppresses his ego in obedience to G‑d (bittul ha-yesh).13His ego still exists, and continually needs to be silenced. That is why, as every seventh year approached, its claim would be heard: “What shall we eat on the seventh year? Behold, we may not sow, nor gather in our increase.”14 Even though on each previous occasion it had seen for itself the fulfillment of G‑d’s promise, “I will command My blessing upon you in the sixth year, and it shall bring forth produce for the three years,’’15 it always renewed its anxieties.

The Jubilee, on the other hand, represents the complete abnegation of one’s being to G‑d (bittul bi-metziut). There is no longer a contending ego. Instead of serving G‑d through an effort of willpower, one serves through understanding, an understanding so complete that it breaks through the curtain of self-deception that separates man from G‑d. It is the “year of freedom,” meaning, freedom from concealment and from the ego that holds man in its chains.

5. Two Kinds of Obedience

Each of these levels has a certain merit vis-à-vis the other.16 Bittul bi-metziut, or the obedience that comes from understanding, has the advantage of being extensive. It encompasses the whole man in its orientation towards G‑d.

Bittul ha-yesh, or the obedience that comes from an effort of will, has the advantage of being intensive. It is an intense spiritual struggle within the soul of man.

To give an analogy: There are two kinds of relationship between a servant and his master. There is the “simple” servant, whose real desire is to be free, but who serves because he accepts the burden of his situation. And there is the “faithful” servant, who serves his master out of love and a genuine desire to obey. Whereas the obedience of the latter is more complete, since his whole nature affirms his service, the obedience of the former is more intense because it is a result of a deliberate subjugation of part of his character. It cost him more in terms of inward effort.

6. The Three Ages

We can now see the full significance of the three periods in Jewish history with respect to the Jubilee and the year of release.

When the first Temple stood, both were observed, that is, Jewish spirituality combined obedience through love and understanding with obedience through effort and subjugation. Love lay even in their subjugation; their effort was also with understanding. The love which transcends the self returned to fill the self.

At the time of the Second Temple, the Jubilee was no longer observed but it was still counted. Love and understanding still counted, still left their traces, in the service of effort and will.

But when the Second Temple was destroyed, all that was left was the year of release, the intense struggle to conquer the ego, and obey for obedience’s sake. No trace of the Jubilee, of inward unanimity, remained.

7. A Disagreement Explained

So now we no longer see the things of the spirit with the clear light of understanding. We are forced to act against our reason, in a gesture of reluctant obedience. True inwardness is beyond us. And yet, the ultimate inwardness never departs. The essence of the soul is always present. In the current spiritual darkness of exile, it still works its subconscious, subliminal influence.

And this is the ultimate source of the disagreement between the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds as to whether the year of release is a matter of Torah or of Rabbinic Law in our time; that is to say, whether it still exists in its own right, or merely as a Rabbinic remembrance of times past,17 when the Jubilee was celebrated.

To the Babylonian Talmud, the product of exile, the observance of the seventh year and its corresponding service of “acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of Heaven” seemed like an act in itself, with no connection to that higher state of the Jubilee and the service which came through love and understanding.

The Jerusalem Talmud, with its higher spiritual awareness, still felt the Jubilee and its service as a continuing, if subliminal, presence. So they saw the year of release as still connected with, and observed in remembrance of, the time when it belonged together with the Jubilee, when the first Temple stood.

Similarly, it is also a preparation for the time when that former state will return, with the building of the third Temple, when the Messiah comes.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VII pp. 170-174)